Tuesday, January 1, 2019

HAPPY NEW YEARS! 1/1: Josh Breakdown; Play Ball; RIP Specs; HBD Hammering Hank,Gunner, Bob, Gary & Webster

  • 1855 - Manager Bill “Gunner” McGunnigle was born in Boston. After his playing career was ended by a beanball that fractured his skull, McGunnigle stayed in the game as a manager. When the 1891 Pittsburgh Pirates (the first to officially use the Pirate nickname) got off to a 31–47 start on the heels of a 23–113 season, the club demoted captain/manager Ned Hanlon and hired McGunnigle, who had a prior stop at Brooklyn. He managed the club to a 24–33-2 record over the remainder of the year and was replaced by Tom Burns. The dapper Gunner was tough to miss on the field. He managed and coached the bases wearing black patent-leather shoes, a cutaway suit coat, lavender trousers, a silk tie and a derby hat. He was street smart despite his foppish attire - he was the first to use signals from the bench and the first to steal opponent’s signs. His nickname, btw, wasn't a play on his surname; he earned it in the minors because of the strength of his arm, per McGunnigle's SABR bio written by Ronald Shafer. 
Gunner in his Brooklyn days - Ars Longa
  • 1892 - In a spur of the moment promotion that drew well, two top Pittsburgh semi-pro clubs, the Pittsburgh Keystones (regrouping after a five-year hiatus) and the South Side Standards, played a New Year’s game at Exposition Park. The game was put together on short notice during an uncharacteristic warm spell, and began with a fife-and-drum corp-led parade from town to the park with the players following in carriages. The contest drew 5,000 fans as the Standards won 8-3; the late afternoon game was called after 7-½ innings because of darkness. It had a touch of the big leagues as former Alleghenys’ pitcher turned Allegheny City bar owner Ed “Cannonball” Morris umpired the game. The Keystones avenged the loss in an April rematch at Expo that drew hundreds rather than thousands of followers. 
  • 1900 - RHP Webster McDonald was born in Wilmington, Delaware. McDonald was a submariner who played in the Negro Leagues from 1920 through 1940 and then managed; he tossed and won one game for the Homestead Grays in 1928 and would later join them on an All-Star barnstorming tour. Webster's nickname was "56 Varieties” due to his deep toolkit of pitches, with his bread-and-butter being a sinking fastball, rising curveball and changeup. 
  • 1911 - Hall of Fame OF Hank Greenberg was born in New York City. He played for the Bucs in 1947, teaming up with Ralph Kiner in the middle of the Pirate order. The original Hammerin’ Hank signed for $90,000, the biggest MLB contract inked to date. Team minority owner Bing Crosby recorded a song, "Goodbye, Mr. Ball, Goodbye" with Groucho Marx and Greenberg to celebrate Greenberg's arrival. The Pirates also brought in the left field fence at Forbes Field for him, calling it "Greenberg Gardens" and keeping it intact during the Kiner era as “Kiner’s Korner.” Though he hit just .249 in Pittsburgh, he had a .408 OBP (he was walked 104 times), launched 25 HR and tutored Kiner in his final MLB season. 
Hank Greenberg 1947 (photo via The Jewish Chronicle)
  • 1943 - C Josh Gibson suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to St. Francis Hospital for rest and treatment. He was released in time to get to spring camp and play for the Homestead Grays. The Pirates reportedly wanted to sign the future Hall of Famer that season as the first black player in baseball, but were reportedly thwarted by the commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The color line wouldn’t be crossed until Landis died in 1944 and Happy Chandler replaced him in 1945. Although he never got a MLB shot, Gibson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972. 
  • 1955 - LHP Bob Owchinko was born in Detroit. The vet made one appearance for Pittsburgh in 1983 after signing as a free agent; he faced two batters against St. Louis, gave up two hits (Andy Van Slyke homered and Darrell Porter doubled), blew the save in a 7-6 loss and has a Pirates ERA of infinity. He had spent most of the year as a starter in AAA Hawaii (10-6/4.25) and was sold to the Reds after the season. It was his second quick tour as a Bucco: the Pirates had originally gotten him as part of the Bert Blyleven trade with Cleveland in 1980, but sent him to Oakland for RHP Ernie Camacho early in April. 
  • 1970 - RHP Gary Wilson was born in Arcata, California. He was drafted by Pittsburgh in the 18th round of the 1992 draft from Cal State (Sacramento) and his MLB career consisted of 10 games tossed for the Bucs in 1995 with a line of 0-1/5.20. His biggest claim to fame was being practically a twin of teammate Esteban Loaiza, with the pair often confused by autograph hounds. Following his playing days, Wilson briefly coached college ball, then became a scout for Colorado and later Kansas City. 
Gary Wilson 1995 Flair
  • 1990 - RHP Carmen “Specs” Hill passed away in Indianapolis at the ripe ol’ age of 94. Hill tossed eight years for the Pirates (1915-16; 1918-19; 1926-29) and was a late bloomer; in his first five Bucco campaigns, he bounced back and forth between the big club and the farm. He was 47-31/3.26 for Pittsburgh, but his heyday was 1927-28 (he won 21 times at Indy in 1926 to earn a return trip to the majors at age 31) when he won 38 games and was a member of the ‘27 NL championship rotation. Oddly, those were the only seasons - he spent parts of 10 years in the majors - that he won more than three games, although the screwballer claimed 202 victories in the minors. But while mostly a depth pitcher, he was a member of good staffs - he was with the Giants, which won the 1922 World Series; the Pirates, winners of the 1927 National League pennant and the Cards, which claimed the 1930 NL flag. Carmen picked up the “Specs” moniker in 1915; he and Lee Meadows are usually credited with being the first pitchers to sport glasses, and they would become Buc teammates from 1926-29.

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